It snowed the night my husband died of a heart attack. I thought he was having a bad dream when he made a few sounds in his sleep, so I nudged him, but he wouldn't wake up. I immediately called 911 and started CPR. I told the woman on the line to keep the ambulance sirens low. Our children, ages seven and nine, who we had just adopted from Liberia two years before, were fast asleep, and I didn't want them to wake up to such trauma, after they had already experienced so much in their short lives.
The ambulances came right away to our Denver, Colorado home, and the EMTs tried to resuscitate my husband for 45 minutes. But he was already gone. I waited until the kids got up that morning to tell them that their dad had passed away. It broke my heart to have to break the news that now their new father, who they had already grown to love, had departed.
My youngest son went outside, and wrote with his finger in the snow on the side of my husband's car, Dad I miss you so much. I wish you hadn't left. Even just recalling it brings me to tears. I knew that moment I had to do whatever it took to keep things together for my family—for my children. I didn't realize our situation was about to get even harder—that less than two years later I'd get a call from my doctor and hear the words: "You have breast cancer."
Our Changing Family
Back in 2005, my husband Dan and I adopted a biological brother and sister from Liberia, a war-torn country at the time. To say they had a difficult life prior to moving in with us would be an understatement—they were staying in a series of displacement camps, without a home to call their own anymore.
Our older children were in college and my one son was a senior in high school, so it felt like a great time to expand our family. In fact, my high school-aged son decided to go to a university closer to home so he could spend more time with his new siblings, and really get to know them. It was such a touching sacrifice, that he would pass up the school he really wanted to attend so he could form a closer relationship with his new brother and sister.
As soon as my children arrived in Denver, we enrolled them in school. There was a bit of a learning curve—I had to pull teachers aside and let them know what different lives they led before coming here. They didn't know what certain things were—for example, a cardboard box—that they'd be expected to identify at their age. Things you take for granted, like running water or the simple act of serving yourself food "family style," my children had never experienced before.
It was always fun seeing things through their perspective those first few years—everything was so new. My son quickly got into technology and video games, and I had to encourage him to go outside. They learned to ride bikes and play sports, and we had such a wonderful time together as a family, with my older children and younger ones becoming true friends. I'm so grateful we have this really close bond—something I needed more than ever in the coming months.
The Aftermath of Loss
When my husband passed away in 2009, everything completely changed. I was so focused on making sure the kids were OK, all while grieving over the loss of my husband, and grappling with the fact that I was now a single mom.
I had to pay the bills and ensure we kept our house—all those things you don't want to think about until something like this happens. I began looking for a job in business development, a role I had before I stopped to raise our young children. I had been in that career for years though, so I didn't think it would be so hard to find a position again. But the months went by and nothing was panning out, so I started waiting tables.
One night while working at the restaurant, I spotted my old boss and his wife, who I hadn't seen in years. He asked about how I was doing, and I told him what had been going on with my family and my struggle to find a new job.
Running into him was the biggest blessing in the world. A position in his company opened up literally that day, and he asked me to come work with him. I've now been at the company for seven years. I started at the bottom again and had to work my way up, but I was willing to come in the door any way I could. And I'm just so thankful I did—because working for a company that had my back proved especially important given my eventual diagnosis.
Getting The News
It was Easter morning at 4 a.m., less than two years after my husband passed. I happened to roll over in my sleep, and scratched a spot on my chest that seemed like a bug bite. My eyes opened in a flash, and I thought, "That feels weird—what the heck is that?"
I rolled out of bed, went to the bathroom, turned on the light, and felt it again. I said to myself, "That's under my skin—that's not on my skin." And I swear to this day, it was my husband alerting me. Because I put lotion on every single morning and had never noticed a thing. How otherwise could such a small lump wake me up from a sound sleep?
I scheduled a doctor's appointment for the next day. The doctor felt the spot, and decided to have it biopsied. Then, in about five days I got the call from my doctor. "You have breast cancer," he said.
I was 45 at the time. No one in my family has had breast cancer, so it was never something I was expecting, especially at my young age. The news stunned me. The first place my mind went was, "Oh my gosh I cannot make these kids orphans again. I cannot die, period. I'm all they have."
After doctors tell you the news, they don't give you a lot of time. They kind of grab you, tell you your action plan and go. I think they want to start treating you right away, before you have a chance to freak out. It seemed like I went directly from hearing my diagnosis to sitting in a chair getting chemo—it was that quick. When I finally took a deep breath, I was already in treatment.
I told my mother and older children after I knew my official diagnosis, but I didn't tell my younger children right away—I wanted to wait until I had a game plan. My adopted son is pretty intuitive, though. He could sense that I was being really quiet and that something was wrong. He asked me a couple of times, "Mom are you OK?" So finally one day he asked again, and I couldn't hide it anymore. I sat them both down, and I told them I was sick and I was going to get better. But, I needed to have to have medicine for a while that would make me sicker, and that I would probably lose my hair. I didn't think they were old enough to understand what that really meant, but my daughter looked at me and said, "Do you have cancer?" She wasn't nine years old and I had to tell her, "Yes, I do."
Hearing this was a whole new kind of spiral for them. They were still dealing with losing their parents in Africa. I knew my cancer would trigger a whole bunch of emotions, but I also knew that if I stayed strong for my little guys, they would stay strong too. Every morning when I was going through treatment, I would sit and look closely at my reflection in my makeup mirror, and say to myself, "You will do this. You can do this."
I wanted them to see I was fine and I was going to be OK, and they didn't need to be scared. They were my driver to get through chemotherapy—I could not leave my kids. Having cancer with small children is hard no matter your situation, let alone as a single parent. Plus, I had the weight of knowing that they had already been through so many other losses. In the middle of the night I would break down, when everyone was asleep. That's when I would allow myself to be vulnerable. I didn't want anyone, not my little or older children, to see how truly terrified I really was.
Support When I Needed It
I had a double mastectomy as well as chemotherapy, then additional Herceptin targeted therapy after that because I had HER2 positive breast cancer—so it was a full year of treatment. I had a body scan to see if any of my cancer had metastasized. If it wasn't already enough, I learned I also had thyroid cancer, unrelated to my breast cancer.
During my time in chemotherapy, I often felt a combination of exhausted, depressed and scared. I felt my worst, though, when I lost my hair, my eyebrows—everything. It turned from my battle that I was fighting privately into something that was incredibly public. There was no doubt of what was going on in my life when people looked at me.
When I would stand in a checkout line, nine times out of ten, people decided it was a good time to tell me about when their mom or aunt died of cancer. It was horrible. Suddenly the whole world felt like they could tell me about when a relative passed. Occasionally someone would come up and say, "Girl, I was there. And you're doing great." It felt so much better to get that sort of encouragement, rather than a reminder of what might one day happen to me. So now when I see a woman with a bald head, I make a point to say, "I was there, and look, my hair is long now. What do you need?"
I got support from strangers, but surprisingly not from someone I would have expected. When I received my diagnosis, my best friend, who my children considered an aunt, just sort of disappeared. She had been supportive after my husband's death, but I think my cancer was too much for her to handle. She couldn't deal, and I never heard from her again.
Thankfully my family stepped up for me in a big way. My older children would arrive at the end of every chemo session and take me to lunch to celebrate "another one down." Meanwhile, my little ones coordinated all of the food that was always showing up at the house. It got to the point that my little daughter became quite a chef as she arranged meal schedules, and would often prepare the ingredients that were delivered. And my little son was my snuggle bug—he was always right by my side making sure that I was never alone.
Outside of my family, my other biggest help in my fight came from an unlikely group of friends who I wasn't even very close with at the time. Initially, my thought was, I can handle everything myself—I'm strong. But I allowed myself to let go of some of my control, and I found this incredible group of people who have become my lifelong friends. One woman started a private Facebook page for me, and some of her friends who I'd never even met in person joined and would regularly cheer me on. I remember one evening a woman reached out on Facebook messenger, when she saw I was awake and logged on in the middle of the night. They were doing all of these great things for me, sending me care packages and messages, and I slowly realized that I too was giving them blessings in return—the joy of taking care of someone.
Because my friends brought me so much strength, I knew I had to pay it forward. I would go into my chemo sessions and see people scared about getting treatment for the first time, or women who didn't know what to expect, and I would be there for them. I'd walk around with my little bald head and say, "How are you doing today?" Or, "Talk to me, what's going on?" Not only was I helping them, but giving back helped me feel better. My oncologist to this day says there's never been a group that's had a closer relationship than when my group was there—and it's because we spoke to each other, and created a sense of community, which is what you need when going through something like this.
My cancer built a completely different level of connection with people—I have a best friend who would probably never be my best friend had this not happened. It's scary to say, but there are so many things about my life today that I probably wouldn't give back if I had to make the choice whether or not to go through cancer again.
Appreciating Every Day
Survivors all have some level of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after treatment, and I do feel like there's a ticking time bomb in my head. I just got results back that I'm healthy and everything is great—but I have this panicky feeling every time I go to the doctor's office. I pray, "Please God, not this time. Please let everything be good."
I also make these deals. I'll say in my head, "If I'm good I promise I'm going to do a better job at this and be better at that." I'm always negotiating. I can't help but think of sand through the hourglass of my life. I was sitting in a meeting yesterday and we were talking about timelines and the year 2025 came up. For most people 2025 sounds great—it's not that far away. But for me, when I hear 2025 it immediately triggers, "If I'm lucky." My nurse-navigator once told me, "You may be cancer-free but you'll never be free of cancer." And she's right, because every time you go to the doctor, you've got to check those boxes.
Because I know so many survivors who share my feelings, I started a group called Focusing on Forward. It's a place where you can go and talk about the emotions that linger after you've found out that you're cancer-free. We share what may happen to you physically, like with early menopause, and also psychologically—because so much of the conversation happens around getting healthy, but there's really not much after-treatment support. I'm also a , and speak at panels and events in Denver. And that's one of the things I love about being a Model of Courage—that we can start a conversation about the importance of community, so women know where to go, and how to get the support and resources they need, and create their own groups of loved ones.
While I'll be the first to admit I do have some PTSD, I didn't realize that I also have something called Post Traumatic Thrive. It's when you find a sense of purpose and a higher understanding of how precious life is. It makes you get up and go a little more, a little harder, and a little faster, and enjoy it all differently afterward.
I've been single for a really long time now. I want to put on my Match profile: I'm this great female who is smart, competent, capable, compassionate and empathetic. And my whole life has changed—I live it a completely different way and I don't know if I would ever change that. But hey, there's only so much time in our lives, so let's meet.
I also never expected I'd also turn into such a calm person—I don't get wrapped up in so many small things and I don't buy into the stress and worry. For me, something is only worry-worthy if we're talking life or death. I wouldn't change the relationships that I've made and the confidence I have in who I am, in what I believe, and my love for my family. I wake up every morning thankful for the day, and I go to bed every night thankful for the day that I've had. And I'm so much more grateful for every single moment, including each second with my children.
What I Can Share
Everyone has a different journey, but there were some things I believe especially helped me in my recovery and beyond. Here's what I've learned along the way, that might help you, too.
Mediation was a good friend of mine during my recovery process, on the days I couldn't get out of bed because I was depressed or scared. I would do online guided meditation and it would help me not be quite so afraid. Now, through Ford Warriors in Pink, you can get access to free guided meditation for a year. Visit .
Don't be hesitant to talk
When in treatment, people often don't speak to each other—it's a very solo battle. But if you can ask how someone is doing, or just say hi, it will brighten their day, build a connection, and make you feel good inside, too. And it's that sense of community that people, including yourself, need when going through something like this.
Let others in
If you've been diagnosed with cancer, don't be afraid to let friends help you. It's actually rewarding for them to play a part in your healing and recovery. And if you have to ask for help, ask. Yes, there are so many resources now for people with breast cancer, but the process is so much easier with good friends around you. And for those who want to help a friend but don't know how, and worry about intruding, to that I say, intrude. Just do something, because it's very likely the person going through treatment doesn't want to feel like they're a burden. So show up and play a card game, or bring a movie and just be there.
Leave some in the tank
When you're going through chemotherapy, understand that you don't want to give 100 percent of your energy. You want to save a little because you're going to have to heal yourself to get back to your new normal once treatment is over. There's going to be a stack of stuff that you didn't get done while you were in chemo, and people will be ready to put you right back to work. You'll need some fire for that.